Alexander Stephens and Hudson Vaughan came to Chapel Hill's historically African-American neighborhoods to document oral histories. They found a community eager to share its story.
Under the guidance of UNC performance and cultural studies professor Della Pollock, they worked with local churches to contact families in Northside and Pine Knolls. These residents have a long history with Chapel Hill: Many built the stone walls that surround UNC; others established the Janitorial Association at the university.
As well as the people, the neighborhoods have a storied past: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a community center there. James Brown stayed in a black-owned hotel in the neighborhood. Teachers, cooks, housekeepers and other blue-collar workers whose sweat equity helped build the town that many romanticize once lived there.
But for years investors had been picking at the fabric of the community. Both neighborhoods are within walking distance to campus, making them prime targets. Developers keyed on families who could not afford rising tax bills and a new generation of residents who couldn't find work in town.
Family houses were being bought, added on to and rented by room to create de-facto mini-dormitories that towered over their neighbors. SUVs were parked atop front lawns, turning once serene views into what appeared to be used-car lots. Trash and noise complaints were rampant.
The oral histories that Stephens and Vaughan collected featured a familiar refrain of "that monstrosity" in reference to Greenbridge, the looming mixed-use complex nearby.
"At some point we had to say we can't just keep listening to these stories and not do something about it," Stephens says. "If we keep hearing the same story related to development from multiple people, then clearly there is something here and something that needs to be done."
With longtime neighbors, community activists and faith leaders all operating under the banner of the Sustaining OurSelves coalition, they did it.
Last week, the Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously approved the Northside and Pine Knolls Community Plan, which creates stricter parking, trash and building rules and pilot programs for home restoration and second mortgages.
"An integrated, anti-racist movement in this neighborhood had not been seen in so long, and that's why you saw such support," says Rob Stephens, a member of the coalition and the N.C. NAACP. "They couldn't afford to not support us."
Sustaining OurSelves began its work in 2009 with leaders from the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, NAACP, EmPOWERment Inc., St. Paul A.M.E Church and St. Joseph C.M.E. Church.
Residents of 80 years and veterans of the fight for the neighborhood joined recent college graduates, who injected new energy into the movement.
SOS has no leaders, only facilitators. In large-scale community conversations in packed church pews, people started hearing themselves being heard, Pollock says.
"There was an issue of, What is sustainability? How does this community define sustainability, and how has this community not been a community of need and helplessness and defeat, but of self-sustainess?" Pollock says.
Keith Edwards, who has lived in Northside since the 1960s, thinks of SOS as like "having troops."
"Many of us who live in this community are retired. Basically, we just didn't have a lot of energy to do the things that needed to be done," she says.
"SOS did a whole lot of stuff that we couldn't do and didn't have the resources to do," Edwards says. "You get so tired of fighting sometimes. The good part was that we didn't have to do a whole lot of fighting this time. SOS took the real fight for us, and all we had to do this time was participate."
There had long been a sense that something needed to be done to curb the rapid pace of development and change in the neighborhood. In 2005 and 2006, respectively, the town established Northside and Pine Knolls as Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCDs), but the rules proved difficult to enforce and builders found ways to meet the letter but not the spirit of the law.
"Unfortunately, it seems like every seven to 10 years we've got to raise our hand again," says EmPOWERment Inc. Executive Director Delores Bailey, who served as chairwoman on the town's NCD committee. [Editor's Note: Delores Bailey was a Citizen Award honoree in 2003.]
"I think different this time is there's been a consistency after the moratorium, and a constant pushing at this so it doesn't get dropped."
Greenbridge and the Downtown Development Framework and Action Plan catalyzed a new discussion.
"Looking up made us look each other in the eye," says CJ Suitt, artist in residence at the Jackson Center and a co-founder of the Sacrificial Poets, which won an Indies Arts Award last year.
At each meeting, residents updated one another about which houses were being sold and flipped.
"The collective sense was it's going to be hard for us to even get our breath if this pace of development doesn't change," Vaughan says.
They decided to push for a moratorium on development that would buy enough time to collaborate with the town to develop a strategy.
To do it, they learned to undergird the residents' powerful narratives with data. SOS, with the help of the Counter-Cartographies Collective, learned new software and mapped the change in single-family owned to investor-owned properties, the number of at-risk properties, those owned by elderly families and others that were already on the market.
The data showed that among 26 building permit applications approved in the past year, an investor submitted all but one. Single-family homes were 45 percent investor owned, a three-fold increase in the last decade. Forty more were "at-risk," meaning for sale, in transition or owned by residents older than 75.
The maps showed the rapid shift residents were describing, but they also illustrated that there was still a family neighborhood left to save. The maps drew a collective gasp when they were presented at Town Hall.
"I remember the night that all of the council people voted on the moratorium, I almost cried I was so happy," says Regina Merritt, a lifelong Chapel Hillian and an SOS organizer.
"Just to know that they could see what we saw to me was a victory. Growing up in this neighborhood we know the changes that have gone on, but when they put that map up, I didn't realize how many homes had been taken. That to me—it just blew my mind."
The moratorium expires at the end of this month, but most of new community plan takes effect Feb. 1. SOS will work on ways to fund it. This is just a start, they say. "If anything we see this town process just as the beginning of something that is much broader and deeper and ongoing, and I think it has to be," Vaughan says.
The plan is especially timely because a new elementary school is scheduled open in Northside in 2014. Families will be able to walk their children to class.
After the vote last week, the coalition joined hands in a circle in the Town Hall lobby. They shared a prayer and a new confidence that advocacy can lead to government action.
"I've been through a lot in my life just because of the color of my skin," says Edwards. "Sitting there, it makes you feel the fight was all worth it."